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On Fox, a Most Promising New 'Development'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page C01

To think it all started with a frozen banana. Soon there was an entire bunch. There was also a lovely bunch of coconuts, to quote the title of a big-band song once sung by Merv Griffin. But wait -- we're drifting far afield. Then again, far afield is where you'll find "Arrested Development," this year's Emmy winner for best comedy series.

The invention of the frozen banana by George Bluth Sr. marked the birth of the Bluths, their fortune and their dynasty; "Arrested Development" is, in fact, "Dynasty" as it might be rewritten for the Three Stooges if there were a dozen of them. The comedy premiered a year ago -- Nov. 2, 2003 -- and while critics loved it, the public gave this frozen banana a cold shoulder. It wasn't an all-out flop, though, and thank heaven, Fox didn't cancel it. Tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 5, it returns for a miraculous second season.

Tobias (David Cross) rehearses for an audition with Blue Man Group, a development that stuns his brother-in-law Michael (Jason Bateman). (Sam Urdank -- Fox)

_____More 'Development'_____
DVD Review: 'Arrested Development'
Arrested's' Emmy Win
Tom Shales on Season One

Fox executives have always had itchy trigger fingers when it comes to canceling their more adventurously nutty, ambitiously insane shows, but they'll stick with a piece of violent junk forever. They care naught what critics say, but "Arrested Development" won not just one Emmy but a passel of 'em, plus some Golden Globes. Even at Fox, somebody felt ashamed to kill it with a meat ax. Or a banana blaster.

Jason Bateman returns as Michael, the one sane, well-mannered, conscientious Bluth. Though Bateman plays the part, Ron Howard, one of the executive producers, narrates the show, basically speaking from Michael's point of view. There's too much of this narration, as there has been on lots of shows in recent years. It's a great device for when writers get lazy and don't want to write scenes.

On the other hand, some of the narration is pretty funny in the same darkly daffy way as the rest of the show. The theme is simple: No matter how hard you try, you cannot escape your family and thus your humanity. You are part of a discredited species. Like Michael, we all have aunts or uncles or even brothers or sisters we would just as soon avoid for the rest of our lives. Michael's distinction is that virtually every little Bluthie fits that description, with the exception of his adolescent son, George Michael (Michael Cera).

And yet Michael pities them. He has a soft spot in the pit of his brain for them. And so the first thing he does on the season premiere is -- abandon them. He and George Michael are seen gliding toward Phoenix in a Mercedes-Benz. Unfortunately, Michael has tried this sort of thing many times before. He always returns to those helpless waifs and oafs, who don't even really know how much they need him. In fact, this time they don't even know he left.

They can't function in the world because for years they lived as happy idle rich. Then the family patriarch, the brilliant Jeffrey Tambor as the imbecilic Bluth Sr., was arrested for a variety of corporate crimes and sent to a country-club prison. The rest of the Bluths were like hamsters who suddenly had their wheel taken away. And they had to endure such humiliations as living on the second floor of a model home in a Bluth-funded subdivision built on appropriately parched earth.

Michael and George Michael make a grand return that no one notices. Somewhere along the way last season, the Bluths acquired a little Vietnamese boy who has become a superpatriotic American. Then along came Oscar Bluth, claiming with considerable credibility to be the identical twin brother of Papa George; Oscar can be distinguished by his scraggly old hippie hair. It's Tambor again, of course.

Other Bluths running around loose include Michael's superficial sister (Portia de Rossi), impetuous older brother (Will Arnett), shiftless younger brother (Tony Hale), bewildered brother-in-law (David Cross), and, most triumphantly cunning of all, Jessica Walter as dear old Mom, but don't let her hear you call her "old." She might not even like "Mom."

Walter's performance is so seamless, sinister and precise that all she has to do is wink on the season premiere and, for some reason, she's convulsively funny. The first wink goes so well she does it one more time; it's a "keeping a secret" sort of wink. Imagine having funny eyelids. Jessica Walter does, and yet Mom is a character with some hidden serious core of desperation and helplessness, and Walter conveys that, too.

All the characters suffer from a hapless ultra-vulnerability but don't quite realize it except in their moments of profound reflection, which are almost nonexistent. Michael's burden is that he is horribly aware of reality and conscious of consequences. It's a curse in the modern world, or so writer and series creator Mitchell Hurwitz may be saying in his acidic, acerbic, absurdist way. Hurwitz could be American TV's answer to Ionesco except Ionesco isn't really a question, and it doesn't really have anything to do with richly enjoying the show anyway.

One Bluth family member, on a continual quest to make sense, turns blue on the season opener because he joins Blue Man Group, the avant-garde performance ensemble, which he mistakes for a support group like Depressives Anonymous or something.

The show also includes a brief appearance by a Michael Moore look-alike (poor soul) playing a renegade journalist, plus a shot of Saddam Hussein's signature, which can be spotted at the bottom of a typically incriminating contract that Idiot Daddy signed before being trotted off to prison.

Sly, wild, clever and just plain nuts, "Arrested Development" makes you think as it makes you laugh, and one of the things it makes you think is, "Why the hell am I laughing?" Deep in your subconscious, you know. You've slipped on the appeal of a frozen banana.

Arrested Development airs tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 5.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company